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Safe planetary boundary for pollutants has been exceeded

A new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has recently assessed the stability of the Earth system based on the impact of the cocktail of synthetic chemicals and other “novel entities” flooding the environment. The experts warn that humanity has exceeded a planetary boundary related to environmental pollutants, placing the Earth and all of its species at risk.

There are over 350,000 different types of human-made chemicals on the global market, including plastics, industrial chemicals, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. The total mass of plastics on the planet is now more than twice the mass of all living mammals, and over 80 percent of all plastics ever produced are still present in the environment. 

Since plastics contain roughly 10,000 different chemicals, their environmental degradation creates new and dangerous combinations of materials and, thus, unprecedented environmental hazards. Additionally, significant amounts of other novel entities continuously enter the environment, endangering our planet and its various ecosystems. 

“There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950. This is projected to triple again by 2050,” said study co-author Patricia Villarubia-Gómez, a doctoral candidate in Sustainability Science at the Stockholm Resilience Center. “The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals and other novel entities into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity.”

“Some of these pollutants can be found globally, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and can be extremely persistent. We have overwhelming evidence of negative impacts on Earth systems, including biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles,” added study co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth, an associate professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Gothenburg

“The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems.”

According to the scientists, these environmental pollutants negatively impact our planet in multiple ways, deteriorating the climate and fresh water sources, helping the spread of invasive species, and increasing the antibiotic resistance of various microbes. 

“We need to be working towards implementing a fixed cap on chemical production and release,” advised Professor Carney Almroth. “And shifting to a circular economy is really important,” added Villarubia Gómez. “That means changing materials and products so they can be reused not wasted, designing chemicals and products for recycling, and much better screening of chemicals for their safety and sustainability along their whole impact pathway in the Earth system.”

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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